I am of the age that shares bad—and sad—memories of Vietnam and yet I now try to get to Hanoi every year … with pleasure. The shopping is fabulous, the food is great, and you can enjoy one of the few destinations in the world that is not only exotic but inexpensive.
I arrived in Hanoi after a few days in Hong Kong and was stunned at how expensive Honkers has become … for everything.
Vietnam is the country to discover if you don’t already know it.
NORTH/ SOUTH/ CITY/ LAKE
I have been to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City or written HCMC) and it’s fine, but for some reason, I left my heart in Hanoi.
Hanoi has a modern airport, several glam hotels and a lot of inherent charm. That means my tailor charges $12 to make me a dress.
You can get to Hanoi fairly easily, especially from other Asian hub cities. United has non-stop service from the U.S. into HCMC, which does make that an attractive alternative.
One of the reasons I like Viet Nam so much is that I can get a small grip on the language by using a trick I recently learned.
The language is written in the same alphabet we use (unlike most Asian languages) and some 30 percent of the vocabulary is based on Portuguese, a romance language. So sound out the words and consider yourself a genius! (Hint: banh sounds like pain, which is bread; lanh is like laine, wool.)
Once I’ve chosen Hanoi over Saigon, I then have to decide city or country for my hotel. Sofitel runs the most famous hotel in town: the Metropole. I almost always stay there although it’s around the corner from the Hilton Opera, another good location that I enjoy. I booked the least expensive room I could find at the Metropole on an online site and then at check-in was offered to upgrade to the historic part of the hotel for $35 a night more.
On the edge of town, there’s a Sheraton—one of the older hotels in town—and a new InterContinental Hotel which is built into Westlake in a very glam fashion. This hotel is more of a resort. Downtown is a 10- to 15-minute, $5 taxi ride away.
The main shopping area is called the 36 Guilds, this is the area that in older times represented the main trades on silver street, silk street, lacquer street, etc.
Nowadays, some streets have sections of specific stores but mostly the main shopping is all jumbled together with stores that sell the local specialties: silk (bathrobes, $15); bed linens (embroidered duvet cover, queen size, $38); lacquer (trays, $20); handbags ($20-100); and contemporary art.
The art scene, in fact, is among the most active in Asia. There are galleries everywhere.
I fell in love with a painting quoted at $400 and negotiated for almost a week before I was able to buy it for $250. The frame and stretcher are discarded and then the canvas is rolled up for easy travel.
There are many storefronts with artists working all day— right there on the street—to reproduce masterpieces. Van Gogh is popular but local artists are also copied so that a painting can quote at $1800 for the original in a Hanoi gallery and be snapped up on the street for $120 (the copy).
The hottest trend in art is the propaganda poster. Most are reproductions; the best have translations of the slogans in English on a Post-It note. The slogans are typical Communist jibjab and the style is similar to both Russian and Chinese propaganda posters but the Vietnamese versions have softer colors and cleaner lines.
There are about four galleries that specialize in these posters; the best is probably Propaganda Art on Nha Chung, right near St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
In fact, the best place to start the shopping spree is at the church and then follow the main streets, the side streets and then make your way a few blocks to Hang Gai, the main silk street that is also studded with tailor shops. Don’t miss side streets that may house secret finds—I like Kien Boutique (18 rue Totich) which specializes in hand embroidered silk clothes, the likes of which sell in Paris for three times as much. (Silk blouse, $68.)
Sometimes a store serves to teach you a shopping lesson. I went to the upmarket Ivory Fashion (99 Hang Gai) where I fell in love with a Missoni-like scarf and paid $25 for it.
Two days later, a girlfriend with a keen eye found a stack of the exact same scarves in a market, for $11 each.
In the first case I was paying for the buyer who knew how to feature the scarf as a fashion item. In the market, we just got lucky. To find a serious bargain in Hanoi, you need a good eye, a lot of patience and some luck.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
The markets in Hanoi are not great and certainly not for anyone who can’t stand a little shoving and pushing. There are fake designer goods but the copies are bad. You can buy a new suitcase for $25, which you will surely need when you’ve done a few days’ shopping.
There is a night market, but it’s not nearly as good as in other cities, nonetheless it’s fun to see the lights and the crowds.
Dong Xuan (say “swan”) is the main market with an indoor portion as well as a warren of side streets with specialty shops selling paper goods on one side and dishes on another. Inside the market there is an upstairs gallery filled with fabric vendors.
It’s not unusual that your tailor will ask you to hop on his or her motor cycle to go to this market and make choices for clothes or bed linen.
The Hom Market is on the far side of town—you don’t really want the indoor portion of this market (junky jeans are the specialty) but instead want the street of open stalls that sell more fabrics.
By Suzy Gershman for PeterGreenberg.com.
For 25 years, Suzy Gershman has written the popular “Born to Shop” series, now published by Frommer’s. Her most recent book, Where to Buy the Best of Everything, is available now. She also hosts international tours several times a year. For more information, visit www.suzygershman.com.
Check out our new Shopping section for gifts and goodies from around the globe.
Check out Suzy’s previous Postcard to Peter: Santa Barbara Shopping.
Hitting up San Francisco? Don’t miss Suzy’s Bay Area Baubles.
Get more Suzy with her Postcard to Peter: The Wares in Buenos Aires.
And for surprisingly offbeat shopping closer to home, don’t miss Suzy’s San Antonio Adventures.